Cats was a movie I didn’t know I needed until I saw it. I was excited as I told my plan to my wife. It’s New Year’s Eve, we should end 2020 in the most 2020 way possible, by finally watching the movie that everyone agreed was a disaster.
I was impressed with my own cleverness. I was going to enjoy how bad this was.
A few days earlier, I’d read this essay Guilty Pleasure or Yellow-Bellied Euphemism? by Anne Billson, where she talks about movies it’s OK to like and others that are, at best, “guilty pleasures”. I love the essay and have been thinking about the same thing myself. It’s encapsulated by something my son says a lot: “I like that movie…but it’s not very good.”
If you like it, then it must be good, right? What he means is that he likes The Transporter, but it’ll never be on the Criterion Channel. So, it does not count as quality cinema. It’s pleasurable but it’s not art.
And then we sat down to watch Cats. Now, I was pretty much entirely oblivious of the musical. We’d studied some of Eliot’s poems at school; Elaine Paige’s version of “Memory” was ubiquitous in my childhood in the 70s. But I had no idea what the story was about. And sure, I’d seen the photos in the articles, blog posts, and tweets that had lined up to kick the movie as it tumbled. But photos are not the same as movies.
It took about 5 minutes before I got that not-familiar movie-watching feeling. I like this. This is good.
This. Is. Good.
And as it went along, my feelings changed from this is good to this is really good. But how? Because this was a bad movie. Everyone said so. It was so bad, it was now a standing joke. It was a given in movie-comment world that this was a stinking failure…used as a kind of measuring stick to weigh up the stink of other movies. Sure, Wonder Woman 1984 doesn’t entirely work, you could say, but it’s not half as bad as Cats.
And I’m saying they’re wrong.
No, that’s not entirely true. I’m just saying you shouldn’t assume they’re right. Because they don’t know what you know.
When people said the human/cats looked ridiculous, eerie…just weird…they were wrong. At least to me – because I loved how they looked. They did look odd – they were, after all, humans with cat fur, tails, and ears. They didn’t look any odder than the aliens in Avatar. If you didn’t know anything about the movie at all, you would know that you were supposed to think of these creatures as cats. And I did.
I also loved the songs. I loved the sets. I loved the dancing. Idris Elba is an excellent baddie. Taylor Swift does a really good version of “Macavity”. Jennifer Hudson knocks “Memory” out of the park. Dame Judi and Sir Ian are delightful.
In short, Cats is a live-action cartoon that takes a much more theatrical approach than, say, the recent Disney so-called live action versions of The Lion King et al. It is not supposed to look real. It is supposed to look like that. If you love Cats – then you’re not wrong. Because movies are an entirely subjective experience. You might be in a minority…but a lot of what are now referred to as great movies were critical failures. If you think Cats deserves to be thought of as one of cinema’s great musicals, then your view is as valid as literally anyone else’s. For you, Cats can indeed be a great movie.
Even if it doesn’t ever make it to the Criterion Channel.